Saturday, December 18, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 19

Austin Church Dedicated December 19, 1847

Last week’s column described travel difficulties of Homer Thrall and John W. Devilbiss as they travelled to their new appointments from the Texas Annual Conference of 1843. Both men had long careers in the West Texas Conference which was later renamed the Southwest Texas Conference. Devilbiss is remembered for establishing Methodism in San Antonio. Thrall is probably best remembered as the greatest of the 19th century Texas Methodist historians. His legacy also included founding churches. On December 19, 1847, he was the preacher in charge at Austin when Methodists dedicated a new church building.

Austin had a rocky beginning. Its creation was a project of President Mirabeau B. Lamar who had visions of expansion to the West. The government moved to Austin in the fall of 1839. Rather than a sophisticated city of monumental government buildings and a state university as it is today, it was a crude frontier village of less than 1000 inhabitants in 1840. There was a Methodist presence in Austin, mainly through the efforts of John Haynie who lived down the Colorado River in Bastrop County. Haynie became Chaplain of the Congress of the Republic of Texas and rode the Austin Circuit to the Methodists of Bastrop and Travis Counties. Nathaniel Moore, James Caldwell (Haynie’s son-in-law), James Gilleland, Middleton Hill, Charles McGehee and their families constituted an important cluster of Methodists. Lamar’s Attorney General, James Webb, was a prominent and active Methodist lay man. When Lamar sent Webb on a diplomatic mission to Mexico, his replacement was Francis Asbury Morris, son of Bishop Thomas Morris.

In addition to this Methodist community, there were also Methodists among the members of Congress who came to Austin to transact the business of the Republic. Methodists, were not, however, the organizers of the first church in Austin. That honor went to the Presbyterians. Methodists had class meetings, and preaching services, usually in the Capitol building, a one-story frame building that was located at 8th and Colorado Streets. Bishop Waugh, who was coming to Rutersville to organize the Texas Annual Conference, preached in the Capitol on December 20, 1840 and gave the invocation when Congress met on Monday the 21st.

When Sam Houston replaced Lamar as president of the Republic, Austin’s fortunes declined. Houston made no bones about his dislike for Austin which had been a project of his political rival. When a Mexican army captured San Antonio in March 1842, Houston used the incident to move the government (except for the Archives) eastward away from the dangerous frontier, first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos.

In 1842-1845 Austin experienced decline and loss of population since it no longer functioned as the Capital of the Republic. Methodist activity all but came to an end. The class Haynie had formed in 1840 dissolved. Austin is not mentioned in the appointments for 1845.

Austin got another chance. The convention called to act on annexation to the United States met in Austin and designated Austin as the capital of the new state of Texas until 1850 when the people would choose a permanent capital. The 1846 Annual Conference appointments listed Homer Thrall appointed to Austin.

When Thrall arrived, he found no organized Methodist activity and no place to live. Rowan Hardin, a distant cousin of Lydia McHenry and Maria Kenney, let him sleep on the floor of his law office. Thrall organized a school in the Capitol to earn some money and organized a Sunday School. By April 1847 he was able to have a quarterly conference authorize a building program. In Thrall’s own words, he was “building committee, collector, paymaster, and general manager” of the construction project.

The church in Austin that Homer Thrall built was dedicated on December 19, 1847. Ten days later, on December 29, 1847, Annual Conference met, and Thrall was transferred to the Washington Circuit. As is often the case, the preacher who builds the church does not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In 1853 the building was sold to another denomination.


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